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Posted by portugalpress on January 15, 2016
Badgir Towers at Yazd
Courtyard at Qom
Persepolis – Bas relief showing tributes to the Emperor
Si-o-Seh Bridge at Esfahan
Sunlight through the stained glass windows of the Nasir al-Mulk Mosque, Shiraz
Tehran skyline with Milad Tower

We had both wanted for years to visit Iran, the country which has some claim to be the cradle of civilised empire, and recently we seized the opportunity to join a tour group. Before we left Portugal, our friends had given us two categories of comment. The first stressed the danger of terrorism and the unknown. Others assured us that it would be safe to experience the beauty of Ancient Persia.

Yes, Iran has its problems; it suffers from Western sanctions, and from inflation near 20%. There is widespread air pollution. It suffers from the misconception that it is an Arab nation, partly because of its squiggly alphabet. But Iran owns its own alphabet and its own language.

One of our group greeted an Iranian with “salaam aleikum”, only to be told “I am not an Arab”. No, they are Persians and they speak not Arabic but Farsi.

Many town streets display pictures of young men, the martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. This type of war memorial is as widespread as the memorials to the dead of WWI in Britain.

We had been apprehensive of the dress code in Iran, and the women on the aircraft had all donned their headscarves shortly before we landed at Tehran Airport. As we disembarked, an Iranian woman reached out her hand and said “thank you for coming to my country”.

This spontaneous gratitude was replicated a hundred times over as we toured the Islamic Republic of Iran. When people asked where we were from, we became used to saying “Ingilistan” (England).

Over the whole of our fortnight’s journey, the friendship and hospitality that we felt from the ordinary people of Iran was amazing. Iranians are immensely proud of their heritage, and they are eager to share it with the world.

When the Islamic invasion took place in the seventh century, Persia was quickly overwhelmed. But unlike other Islamic nations, it has retained markers of its national identity. Even among the Moslem nations, it is different because it is the world’s only country whose official religion is Shia Islam rather than Sunni.

It came as a surprise to us to learn that Iran also respects other faiths, such as Christianity and Zoroastrianism. But not Bahai because it is a subsect of Islam.

Our tour group was small because some had cancelled their reservations following the terrorist attack in Paris. The small size of the group had its benefit, since we rapidly made friends with each other and had more time to quiz the tour leader. Mehdi Mokhlesi (thankfully he said “call me Tony”) was a superb ambassador for his country and ensured that we saw as many of the sights of Iran as we could within the fortnight.

In Tehran, we began at the National Museum of Iran, the main archaeological museum in the country. The museum was built in brick in the 1920s as a tribute to Iran’s architectural heritage, and under the aegis of the first Pahlavi. The building itself is as interesting as the rather pedestrian exhibition halls.

As we learned more about Iran, we discovered that Reza Shah Pahlavi (1925-43) and his son Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi (1943-79) had originated an immense amount of building in this country, and many Iranians respect them for their heritage.

We went on to visit the Golestan Palace (rebuilt under the 19th century Qajar dynasty) which housed a copy of the Peacock Throne in the Hall of Mirrors.

The National Jewels Museum was amazing. The Pahlavi rulers added so enthusiastically to the already huge collection that the jewels were moved to the vaults of the Bank of Iran to become the reserve for the national currency.

The Darya-ye-Nur (sea of light) pink diamond weighing 182 carats is said to be the largest uncut diamond in the world. For me the Globe of Jewels at 34kg was the centrepiece. It was made in 1869 using 51,366 precious stones on a background of gold. Emeralds comprise the oceans and while the landmasses are shown in rubies, Iran, Britain and France are set in diamonds.

There are so many palaces in Iran that it is easy to become confused. The Saad Abad Museum Complex contains the Green Palace (first Pahlavi) and the White Palace, location of the 1943 Tehran Conference (second Pahlavi), while the Niyavaran Palace was designed by French architects for the second Pahlavi, where the royal family lived for their last 10 years in Iran.

The last Shah and his Queen, Farah, also built the concrete Carpet Museum, and the Museum of Contemporary Art (opened in 1978, the year before the Revolution), including works by Monet, Pissarro, van Gogh and Jackson Pollock.

At Tehran railway station, we were entertained in the VIP lounge by the deputy director of the station, before taking the six-hour train journey to Yazd, 600km to the south. The train was modern, clean and comfortable, and any nation would be proud of such a rail service.

In the middle of the desert, Yazd has featured on the Silk Route, and at the main Fire Temple of the Zoroastrians there is a fire which has apparently burned continuously for over 1500 years.

A main characteristic of Yazd is the badgir tower, an early form of air-conditioning. Such towers can be seen all over the town and in southern Iran generally. On to Shiraz, having viewed at Abarkuh the 4000-year-old cypress tree, allegedly the oldest living thing in the world.

Shiraz Citadel leans like the Tower at Pisa, and the mausoleum of national poet Hafez was yet another construction attributable to the Pahlavis.

The following day the sun shone through the stained glass windows of the prayer hall of the Nasir al-Mulk mosque. Shiraz is of course famous for its grapes, but alas no longer for its wine.

For me, the highlight of the tour was our visit to nearby Persepolis, the ancient capital of Darius the Great. Persepolis was founded in 512BC at a time when the Persian Empire stretched from the Indus Valley to the Aegean Sea. There was no more impressive building in the ancient world, except perhaps Karnak in Egypt. Darius built the terrace, the Apadana Great Audience Hall, the Palace and the monumental staircases and his son, Xerxes, added the harem and the hall of 100 columns.

On the detailed and monumental bas reliefs, it is possible to identify the representatives of 23 different nations paying their tributes to the emperor.

The nearby magnificent cliff face royal tombs at Naqsh-e Rustam are reminiscent of the Treasury at Petra, the Rose-Red City in Jordan.

Esfahan is one of the places one must visit, in terms of civilisation similar to Athens or Rome. During the day, we visited Naqsh-e Jahan, the second largest square in the world including the beautifully tiled Masjed-e Shah and Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfollah mosques and the Ali Qapu Palace.

The magnificently decorated Armenian Cathedral is testament to Iranian religious freedom and more prosaically, we climbed a pigeon tower (originally used to collect pigeon dung to fertilise the city’s famous fields of watermelon).

Images of the bridges of Esfahan had haunted my imagination for years, and I was not disappointed. We visited the Shahrestan (12th century), Si-o-seh (1599), Khaju (1650) and Chubi (1665), bridges over the Zayandeh River.

On our way back towards Tehran, we visited Iran’s holy city of Qom. The monorail is not yet ready, so we had to travel to the shrine in a shuttle bus. There, the five women of the group had to don chadors, and to wipe off their lipstick.

The shrine is the burial place of Imam Reza’s sister Fatemeh interred here in the ninth century, and the complex has been undergoing continual improvement ever since.

Non-Muslims are not allowed to enter the shrine itself but the courtyards and tiled domes and minarets are breathtakingly beautiful.

Iran seemed in many respects European. Street names are everywhere shown in English, even the banknotes are printed on one side in English. In many countries, it is possible to feel a distance between peoples and their governments, as much in Portugal as in Iran. We felt quite at home among the people of Iran, and can recommend this destination to any student of history and ancient culture.

By Lynne Booker

Lynne Booker, along with her husband Peter, founded the Algarve History Association.